About a year ago, we published a book review for Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2′s Deadliest Day. Since then the book has won a dozen awards including the National Outdoor Book Award. I recently spoke to Peter Zuckerman, co-author of the book to find out more about his experience with the Sherpas and the Pakistani climbers as he collected information during the writing and research for Buried in the Sky. Here is an excerpt from our interview.


 What do you think made this book successful?

First, I think it was very deep research. When I worked at newspapers, I had this feeling that if we missed a question or didn’t answer something, well, we were on a deadline and given the time I had, I just never got to find the answer. But with a book you don’t have that excuse, you know, you’re ‘writing the book on the topic.’ It seems sloppy if you’ve left something unanswered.

Going in with the attitude that “the information is out there and if I can’t find it, at least I have to show that I’ve done everything in my power to find it.” That was a strong point in the writing of the story. I’ve read a lot of mountaineering books and I’ve found them really confusing because there is so much going on all at the same time, it’s hard to keep everything straight and tell it in as straight-forward a way as possible. I really strived to keep the actual event chronological and keep it divided by character. I think that helped a lot.

What made you go back to the beginning of Chiring’s life? The disaster was an interesting read, but for me the cultural history was a much more compelling part of the book.

That’s what I was hoping. I think people who are less familiar with mountaineering, the things they find most compelling are the action sequences. And when people have read a lot of those in climbing, then this is a whole new aspect of that.

Part of what drove me to write this is I feel like there are plenty of stories of a climb up a fixed rope to a mountain top, and it’s a good story, but it’s been done. If I was going to write it, I wanted something that added to the literature that wasn’t really there before.

The reason I focused on Chiring and Pasang’s lives, it keeps us from making broad generalizations about a culture that we don’t know about. I didn’t want to paint with a broad brush.  When you’re writing about a culture, you’re never going to capture a whole culture in a couple chapters, but you can capture who someone is and their experience with the culture. To tell it through someone’s life was more interesting, I thought.

Did you consider telling it through Amanda’s friend, Karim’s point of view? (Karim died on K2 during the disaster.)

Yeah, we thought of that, and it would have been a little harder. So much of what happened to him is unknown, it has to be pieced together through photos. But it would have been really hard to piece together, for one, because there would have been no one to interview. Part of me wanted to do it from the Pakistani climbers point of view, partly because there is hardly anything written about them at all. But the reason is, the information is harder to get, the research is more dangerous, and I’m particularly worried that no one relates to “high altitude porter” the way they do to “Sherpa” so there were many things.

You were in Nepal for six months on one of your trips. Where were you for most of that time?

I spent most of it in Rowaling, which is where Chirring is from. To get there, you start in Kathmandu, get on a bus, drive for a day and a half or so on a really scary road, overnight somewhere in the middle. Then it’s about an eight-day trek – well, for me it is, I am an out of shape Westerner – you wobbled over some bridges made from chain link fence. Chirring was my guide from Kathmandu to his village over those eight days.

How much trekking on a given day, 6-7 hours every day, like regular trekking?

I would say so, yeah, but I was stopping along the way to talk to people and figure out where people were. Then the interview process took a lot longer than I thought it would. I would ask a question that I didn’t realize made no sense to them. A basic question like “how old are you?” would be translated from me, through Chiring who would translate it into Nepali, then to the local translator, who would ask in the local Sherpa language, and then there would be a discussion between the subject and the local translator, they’d go back and forth for a while, then between the local translator and Chiring and then he would say, I can’t quite get you an answer, but he was born during the Buddah’s moon festival in the winter.

That’s awesome!  Were you travelling alone?

I had Chiring with me for most of the time, and a translator along the trek. Then we picked up local translators. Initially my plan was, I was going to Kathmandu, interviewing people there, then going home.  In the US we tend to have sit-down interviews. And reading other mountaineering books, that sounded like what other people did. But especially in southern Asia, sit-down interviews just didn’t really work. I got so little usable material.

Just the concept of writing a book was hard for them. They’d say, “what do you mean you’re writing a book?” So it wasn’t really working, so I thought, ok, I’ll just go trekking with the characters. Then I can talk about certain things along the way and nudge conversations in certain directions, try to get them talking. Finally, that’s what eventually worked. But I don’t know if I just do it differently from other journalists, but I feel like everyone else conducts an interview, gets their content and goes on. Maybe everyone else is just way better at doing it than me, but it feels like, I did this interview, I thought I got all this great material, looked through it, found most of it was unusable, then this little part over here, it turns out that that is the important part and I need to go ask a bunch more questions.

The part that I didn’t ask many questions about, that I didn’t think mattered during the interview, it turns out that matters a lot and I should have asked all these other questions. But I had to digest it first. Then I figured it out.

Can you give me an example of that?

Yeah, you can even see this in the book, because I would have done more research in certain areas if I could have. Like in Pakistan, there’s a character Shaheen and a guy who rescues him named Nadir. All of the Westerners I talked to hardly mentioned them. Nobody mentioned Nadir. The Sherpa climbers either, and the Pakistani climbers mentioned him but that was after I’d done all the other interviews. Then I realized that Shaheen getting sick was a key moment in the whole disaster because he was the translator for the lead team. Without him the lead climbers couldn‘t talk to each other. The Sherpas didn’t want to talk about this because, I think they resented the Pakistanis and they wanted to be able to order the Pakistanis around. But they had to respect Shaheen, but they didn’t really want to do that. So I didn’t know any of this until I talked to the Pakistani climbers. And so it became a huge thing when he got sick. And I would have liked to get everyone’s responses to that, but it wasn’t easy to do at that point.

Then one of the most dramatic parts of the whole rescue is, Shaheen gets sick and there is this cook Nadir who is in base camp. He hears Shaheen is sick, and none of the Westerners want to go up and rescue him. Something was lost in translation and they didn’t realize he was up there dying on the mountain. So Nadir has to beg Westerners to let him borrow their gear. He is literally wearing mismatched boots, doesn’t have much experience climbing and climbs for two and a half days straight to rescue Shaheen singlehandedly off the mountain. That’s an incredibly heroic thing to do. Almost nobody knew that had even happened. To me that was one of the most dramatic and important rescues of the whole disaster. It really shed light on the problems of the climb because the Westerners weren’t interested in rescuing this guy, or didn’t understand the need. Nobody realized he was the lynchpin of the lead team being able to work together.

But I didn’t figure that out during the interviews. I didn’t know to ask the Sherpas about Shaheen. I’d never heard about the guy.

There isn’t a single moment in all these interviews where anyone said “I made a mistake” it was always “someone else made mistakes.” People told stories that conformed to that view for themselves and for their friends.

There were parts where people remember in perfect detail, and other moments where they just don’t.  There were moments where I was thinking “this guy must have been really sick and out of it at that moment.” It must be like war or like a car accident. Different people will see different things and it doesn’t mean that both of them are actually right.  But when you put it all together with all the photos and all the video and gather all the information, statements, look at the skid marks on the ground, you can get a pretty good idea of what happened.

There are definitely areas in the book where I say “Nobody really knows what happened at this point.”


Peter Zuckerman is the co-author of Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2′s Deadliest Day. It is newly available in paperback and as an audio book. It’s the best outdoor book I read in 2012.

BuriedITS Paperback

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